Find another leader for the Pentagon
February 6, 2013
If you only tuned in for former Sen. Chuck Hagel's opening statement in the Senate confirmation hearing last week on his nomination for secretary of defense, you might have thought, what's all the fuss?
Hagel hit all the right notes in a sweeping, forceful endorsement of the muscular use of American military power around the world to defend the nation's security. He voiced strong support for Israel and said he would maintain pressure on terrorist groups in Yemen, Somalia and North Africa.
"I believe, and always have, that America must engage — not retreat — in the world," Hagel declared, sounding much like his highly praised predecessors, Leon Panetta and Robert Gates.
But then came the questions from the members of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Queries that Hagel should have drilled out of the park, given that he'd prepped intensively for this performance. Instead, Hagel stumbled, bumbled and fumbled.
One squirm-in-your-chair example: Hagel declared the Obama administration's policy on Iran's nuclear weapons program was "containment," meaning the U.S. could tolerate a nuclear-armed Tehran. An aide handed Hagel a slip of paper to remind him that the administration's position is that Iran will not be allowed to terrorize the world with a nuclear weapon.
Slap to forehead.
Was that a simple Hagelian slip of memory? Or a statement of genuine belief? Hagel has suggested the world could tolerate a nuclear Iran and rely on deterrence, the threat of retaliation, to keep Iran from using its weapons.
That blunder came weeks after Hagel's Second Thoughts Tour, in which he wooed Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York and other Democrats by repudiating most of the Iran-coddling and anti-Israel statements he has expressed over a decade.
Has Hagel really changed his views to fit the administration's position on Iran and other foreign policy challenges? Or is he mouthing tough words written for him by his administration handlers?
Sen. John McCain grilled Hagel about his opposition to the 2007 troop surge in Iraq ordered by President George W. Bush. Hagel refused to say whether he had been right or wrong. He said he'd await the "judgment of history." If he had spoken with candor, he would have acknowledged that the surge helped win that war and hasten the safe departure of U.S. troops. Why the reluctance to say so?
There was a puzzling assertion by Hagel that Iran's rulers are "legitimate" and "elected." The despotic ayatollah who rules Iran and all those who rigged the last presidential election must still be chuckling over that.
Even Hagel's defenders blanched at his astonishingly poor performance. "I'm going to be candid," Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri told MSNBC. "I think that Chuck Hagel is much more comfortable asking questions than answering them."
We'll be candid, too: He should be in some other job, not running the Pentagon.
Hagel is expected to be confirmed, largely with Democratic votes, largely out of deference to President Barack Obama. A vote in the Armed Services Committee is expected to be held Thursday.
A president should enjoy a certain level of deference in his Cabinet choices. But in this case we stand with Republican Sen. Mark Kirk, who has announced he will vote against Hagel's nomination.
The nation needs a defense secretary who is consistent, who is well-versed in defense planning and policy, and who will give frank and independent advice to the president about when and when not to project U.S. power. Hagel inspires no confidence on any of those counts.
A defense secretary who will not need to be reminded that the president has vowed to thwart Iran's drive to develop nuclear weapons.
A defense secretary who has enough credibility to muster support in Congress for a long-planned downsizing of the U.S. military to a smaller, less-expensive footprint. The Wall Street Journal had a wistful reminder on Tuesday of what might have been: an insightful op-ed on Pentagon spending cuts by Michele Flournoy, the former undersecretary of defense for policy who was passed over by Obama for the nomination.
If the likes of Iran and al-Qaida "believe that the United States has decided, for any reason, to relax its vigilance or relinquish its leadership role, the result could be catastrophic," former U.S. Ambassador Robert J. Callahan writes in a perceptive essay on today's Perspective page. "Our security, and that of much of the planet, depends on our constant and resolute efforts to keep the rogue states and terrorists at bay."
Syria is unraveling. So is Egypt. North Korea threatens another nuclear test. Al-Qaida plots in havens around the world. All of those threats — and many more unforeseen — await the advice of the next defense secretary to the president.
Chuck Hagel served this country honorably in Vietnam. But his troubling position on key defense issues and his disastrous performance at his hearing last week should prompt the Senate to turn down the nomination.